For more than thirty years, he has been one of the shadow hands of Disney animated films. Unknown to the general public, Alan Menken nevertheless plays in the big leagues. Cinema and childhood owe him the music and songs of Beauty and the Beast, The Hunchback of Notre-Dame, Hercules, Aladdin and Pocahontas. In 1989, his first collaboration with Disney, on The Little Mermaid, crowned him with two Oscars. Thirty years later, the child prodigy revisits his triumphs of yesteryear in live-action adaptations of Disney classics. Despite the consensual content of the stories, the new version of The Little Mermaid nevertheless managed to stir up controversy related to its distribution and the reworking of the text of two songs. Interview with the maestro of American animation.

LE FIGARO. – The new version of The Little Mermaid has been called “wokist” due to its cast and the reworking of two cult songs you wrote 34 years ago. How do you explain these choices?

Alan MENKEN. – There was an amusing and mischievous side to these songs whose texts, at the time, did not offend anyone. For Embrasse-la, sung by the crab S├ębastien (discreet matchmaker for an evening between Prince Erik and Ariel, the humanized siren rendered mute by a spell, Ed.), our idea, to Howard Ashman (the lyricist of the songs of the movie) and I had been to do a rather romantic scene, embroidered around the desire to kiss each other. Then the critics swooped down; we have been accused of writing an ode to aggression. Ditto with the second problem song, Poor Souls in Perdition, sung by the sea witch, Ursula, which carried an embarrassing vision of human women (the original song mentioned that “when a woman knows how to hold her tongue, she is always well more charming”). But social norms and people’s sensitivities are changing, and these texts can now offend a part of the public. It’s a reality. And it is not fundamentally serious; it is common for ideas to change over time. So we decided to rewrite these pieces, to better take into account the evolution of society. It was important to do so. Finally, we didn’t destroy these songs either, but simply took their text from the margin.

Did this 19th century Danish tale reinvented by Disney in 1989 already need a facelift? How did you approach it?

Having signed the music for these Disney films, with Howard Ashman (died in 1991, Ed.) is both a blessing and a curse. I realize this in concert, where I sometimes have the impression of reliving the past over and over again. It’s wonderful, and it’s a burden I carry with joy, but I’m getting older and I also enjoy working on new projects. For the new adaptation of The Little Mermaid, director Rob Marshall was very respectful of the source material. He’s someone who comes from the music hall world, from Broadway, so everything went very well. However, I didn’t really want to just copy and paste. On the contrary, I held a ridgeline, embodying both the role of guardian of the temple of the original film, while remaining open to new approaches. The film marks my first collaboration with Lin-Manuel Miranda (the new child prodigy of music in Hollywood, composer of the musical Hamilton as well as the animated films Vaiana or Encanto). We signed the new songs together. He wears a really fantastic new look.

Do you now regret having composed certain songs?

No, I do not think so. At least not in the Disney animated classics. There are other projects in which I participated and which, perhaps, would have done better never to see the light of day, such as La ferme se rebelle, in 2004. The screenplay was not very clever, you have to admit it. There are also songs that I like less, but that work because of their place in the story where they appear, for their dramatic function. A good song, like Going Over There in The Little Mermaid, has to strike a balance between emotion and story.